Review of Frank Tallis’s “Vienna Twilight”

Viennese mysteries are close to my heart, and Tallis is surely the master of Viennese mystery. He writes historical, psychological thrillers—nothing cozy about him, despite the number of cakes that are consumed in the course of his novels.  They are set in the early years of twentieth century Vienna, where the young doctor in the developing field of psychiatry, Max Liebermann, helps his friend, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, investigate one strangely perverse crime after another.

Those readers who think there is too little serious detection and too much psychiatric speculation in these novels should note that Tallis, from the beginning, described these novels as “The Liebermann Papers,” thus making it clear what his own bent of detection was. He is openly interested, in the words of Freud, quoted recently on this blog, in discovering “the hidden psychic material.”

My reading of mysteries in the course of a lifetime has been serendipitous, and it was by chance that I came upon Frank Tallis in my local bookstore in Vienna where I saw a novel called: “Wiener Tod” [Viennese Death],  looked inside and saw that it was the translation of an English mystery novel, “Fatal Lies,” written by a practicing British clinical psychologist who lived in London.  I was immediately hooked. Living in Vienna myself at that time, I was writing a murder mystery set in present-day Vienna, and so I was immensely curious about what this Englishman would do and how he would do it.

Translated by Lotta Ruegger and Holger Wolandt, it read very naturally in German, transporting the reader through choice of words and manner of speech as well as through actual scene-setting into an older Vienna, and I wondered how Tallis had managed this in English. I have read five more since in Tallis’s own English, and he certainly pulls it off here too, not of course by writing any kind of Germanized (Austrianized) English, but by his own stately and somewhat mannered version of English prose, using words and expressions with a flavor of the past.

I am going to talk today about the latest Tallis novel to appear fully in the U.S (i.e. also on Kindle) under the nondescript title, Vienna Twilight [Random House]. The U.K. title of the same novel is Deadly Communion which gives a much stronger impression of the novel’s content and also says more about the way Tallis uses language.  I will quote here a small passage from the first chapter to give the flavor of this language: It is a description of a very nervous patient, Erstweiler:

Liebermann scrutinized his patient: early thirties; dark hair infiltrated with gray; a thin drawn face; tired bloodshot eyes; fingermarks on his spectacles.  Erstweiler’s brow was scored by three lines—short, long, and short. Their depth suggested indelibility. He had neglected his toilet and his chin was scabrous.  Erstweiler placed a palliative hand over his frantic heart.

Not in the least German, but not quite twenty-first century English either. Tallis largely sustains this style through his hundreds of pages, and it does not become wearisome, at all events, not to me.

Such genteel language serves well to describe the drawing-room scenes in which our two detectives make music, Rheinhardt with his rich baritone voice and the young piano-playing doctor, Liebermann.  It serves well to conjure up the turn-of-the-century houses of haute couture where loose and lovely “reform dresses” are beginning to “liberate the ladies from their whalebone corsets,” and to describe the décor of Moser and Hoffmann which Liebermann, a devotee of all things modern, “surveys in a state of blissful enchantment.” It serves well to bring to life Mahler’s conducting of the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde in the opera house, “wielding his baton like a scalpel, like some great anatomist, revealing mysteries that had hitherto remained beyond the reach of human comprehension,” and to color conversations with Sigmund Freud where he sits at his own desk, opening his mouth to release “a cloud of smoke that tarried in the air before losing definition in the already opaque atmosphere.”

But do not imagine that this same genteel language in any way softens the impact of the horrible crimes that provide the story with its plot.  This is no cozy mystery in which a murder is quickly recounted and then fades in its literal detail out of the picture so that the reader can concentrate on the “fun” of the detection process.  On the contrary: One of the main components of Tallis’s detection process is the close analysis of the act of murder itself and this involves the detailed  examination of each corpse.

Night after night on our modern TV screens, watchers of crime-series see morgues and  autopsy tables float before the camera, but rarely does one come as close to the work of the pathologist as in Tallis’s Vienna where Professor Mathias, the elderly “gnome-like pathologist” goes about his macabre business before the sometimes averted eyes of the ever shockable Detective Inspector Rheinhardt,  his young consultant, Dr. Liebermann and the much cooler scientific gaze of Miss Amelia Lydgate, a very proper English lady,  a student of pathology at the University, a talented microscopist, an “expert on blood,” and an early feminist with “sororal sympathies.”

Stately language serves here not to mask the horrors of this process but to make them quite palpable, as when Mathias, burying his face in the underwear of the victim and inhaling deeply,  explains his actions to a mystified Rheinhardt:   “I am employing my nose—a somewhat underestimated organ—to detect . . .” he paused before adding, “masculine traces.”  In the next autopsy, Miss Lydgate, amazingly (amusingly?) follows suit in the examination of the corpse itself: “she did so with the serious determination of a convalescent eager to experience the invigorating tang of a coastal breeze.”  Rheinhardt has recourse to smoking a cigar, with the Professor’s permission.

Taken thus out of context, such descriptions may appear comic, and so, in a sense, they are. Tallis can make one smile during the most horrific descriptions of autopsy on the young women who are murdered in the course of the novel.  But horrific they remain.  The murderer in this novel is a psychopath who “murders in the midst of consensual love”—I am here betraying nothing that is not said on the cover of the paperback version of the novel, whose front cover is charmingly adorned with the murder instrument, a hat pin. We find this out early in the novel, and very early in the novel too a voice begins to speak to us, in italicized sections, unidentified, but after the first or at latest second section, we recognize this to be the murderer’s voice describing the origins and the development of his murderous proclivities, beginning with his early fascination with death. We are privy to these pages, but our detectives who do not read them until the end are not. And yet our young psycho-therapist Liebermann recognizes him by the fiftieth page as being a thanatophiliac, aroused and excited not by the dead, but by the act of dying.

Dr. Liebermann does his detecting largely by ratiocination with a good dose of dream analysis, driven by the new psychoanalytic theories of Dr. Sigmund Freud whom he reveres and with whom he has the privilege of discussing the cases he has on hand, his own patients as well as the cases of murder where he steps in to help his friend.  Rheinhardt sometimes finds the psychoanalytic musings of his young friend hard to take, but usually comes round to following his advice, while himself preferring to plod through the “terra firma of conventional detection,”  interviewing one by one, for example, the gentlemen whose names are found in the address book of one of the victims.

Each man has his own case to investigate—Liebermann, the psychiatric patient, Erstweiler, who sees his own doppelgänger, ­and Rheinhardt,  the serial murderer with his hat pin—and each helps the other to a solution. It so happens that the “Sophocles syndrome,” better known to us nowadays as the Oedipus Complex,  discussed by Liebermann with Freud, is at the heart of both—love of the mother, hatred of the father, unresolved in childhood, resulting in hideous crimes in adulthood.

I unashamedly enjoy the repeated, stylized sections where Liebermann and Rheinhardt perform Lieder, and then repair to the smoking room to discuss the songs, whose topics are atuned  of course to the cases they are investigating, here Schubert’s song, “To Death,” for example, and his “Doppelgänger.” A good second to the music-making for sheer reading pleasure are the cake-eating sessions. The “portly” Rheinhardt is a devotee of Viennese cakes of all kinds, and is constantly slipping into coffee houses to strengthen the body and soothe the soul, but the younger thinner­ Dr. Liebermann is also no slouch in the cake-eating area and can put away a dobostorte with the best of them.

Some of the most appealing (appalling?) exchanges take place with cake, thus Miss Lydgate, for whom Liebermann suffers agonies of unrequited love, sits with him in the Café Central: They discuss pathology, her great passion, and the possibility of her attending the autopsy of Professor Mathias in the dreadful case under investigation, while all the time eating the most delicious scheiterhaufen, which “exuded a potent fragrance of vanilla, cinnamon and rum. The thick slices of bread were sprinkled with raisins and icing sugar and were dripping with molten apple puree.” The relationship between the two reaches the closest it ever comes to a climax in their mutual enjoyment of this particular confection, when, having secured Liebermann’s support for her participation in the autopsies of Mathias, the young doctor takes another mouthful of scheiterhaufen, “his enjoyment of which found a corresponding quintessence in Amelia’s satisfied expression.”

Ah yes, there may be those who find precisely this kind of stylized episode is wearing a little thin in this, Tallis’s sixth Viennese novel, those who want to see development in the characters, in the relationships, but it is the delicate dance of the main characters, repeated again and again, that I unabashedly like. It is for this, conjured up in the illusory Viennese setting,  that I am prepared to swallow the horrors of the murders themselves, described as they are in excruciating detail.  I am even prepared in this novel to endure the fantasies of the serial killer, described in his own words, and culminating in one ghastly scene that takes place after he is in custody which I will certainly not describe here.  Well, at least, this is what I tell myself.  And yet, and yet, I wonder with horror, is there something in me and in others that draws us to such scenes too?

I am reminded of Rheinhardt’s own comments, which I quoted recently in this blog:

Rheinhardt looked troubled: “Sometimes I wonder whether some minds are so deranged that nothing useful can come out of their study: Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis has sold thousands of copies and because it is a scientific work, respectable gentlemen read it without scruple. Yet do they really read those cases—page after page of horror, sickness, and moral degeneracy—to improve their understanding of mental illness? I think not. They read the Psychopathia Sexualis because it is sensational and it arouses in them a dubious prurient excitement.

Oh dear.  Does one read the descriptions of horrors in Tallis’s novel because they “arouse a dubious prurient excitement”?

I really do not think so.  And yet, and yet … I was quite shocked just about a week ago to read on the Op Ed page of the New York Times an article by Jeff Lindsay on his own novels in which he writes in the first person about Dexter, a psychopathic serial killer. People love these novels, Lindsay tells us, and women have crushes on Dexter.  He has made Dexter, he tells us, a sympathetic character in order to bridge the gap between the psychopath and the “normal person.”  Tallis most certainly does not make his hat-pin-wielder a sympathetic person, though he does analyze in considerable detail what has made him into the psychopath he is.  His two very attractive detectives live in quite another emotional world from the murderers they hunt down. They feel, for example, nothing but disgust for one of the suspects, the artist Rainmayr, who paints obscene pictures of emaciated young girls for rich gentlemen who like that sort of thing.

Tallis does, however, draw identifying lines between his fictional Vienna and the Vienna of history, and sometimes these lines disturb me.  Almost at the end of this novel he explicitly associates the death wish with the “German soul.”  Liebermann is at the opera, eating chocolates with his colleague, Rheinhardt, and is finally overcome by the passion and power of (inevitably) Wagner’s Liebestod. In this moment of high emotion, he lines up the characters of the novel, the murderer, the psychiatric patient, with Wagner, Mahler—“they were all sick,”—yes, and he even had to include himself.  He wants at this moment to die, in love. Looking at Rheinhardt whose cheeks are streaked with tears, he thinks, “We Viennese, what will become of us?”

Inevitably, the reader, who knows only too well what became of the Viennese in the twentieth century, sees that familiar line leading mysteriously from the nineteenth century aesthetic/intellectual “death wish” straight to Hitler.  This is in itself a gigantic over-simplification, and I wish, though it makes a neat ending, that Tallis had not fallen into it. Happily, he adds a small down-to-earth coda or two, Rheinhardt moving matter-of-factly against Rainmayr, for one.  But this, along with the whole question of how deeply the novels really examine the contrast between the rich and the poor, is material for another essay. I hope you will add your comments, and perhaps, if we are lucky, we can have a conversation with Tallis himself.  He is still, in my book, the master of Viennese mystery.

About dorothyjames

Welsh-American writer, German scholar, translator, traveller.
This entry was posted in historical fiction, murder mystery, psychological thriller, Vienna mysteries and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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